Shifting Battlefield in Syria’s Proxy War
The Trump administration’s halt to a CIA program arming anti-Assad militants makes the Syrian battlefield less complicated, but only the cooperation of outside powers can end the war, says veteran reporter Charles Glass
AARON MATE: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. The complex Syrian battlefield is changing and here to help us make sense of it is a reporter who has been covering Syria and the Middle East for several decades. Charles Glass is a journalist and author of several books, including most recently, “Syria Burning: A Short History of a Catastrophe.” Charles, welcome.
CHARLES GLASS: Thank you.
AARON MATE: Thanks for joining us. Let’s start off with this recent announcement from President Trump that he’s ending the CIA program in support of militants fighting Bashar al-Assad. Do you think that that changes the equation inside Syria significantly?
CHARLES GLASS: It reduces one complicated element. It’s a recognition that the program of western countries, particularly the United States, arming, funding, and training rebels inside Syria has failed to dislodge the regime and failed to diminish any support at all for the jihadist groups who are very much in the ascendant within the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. So it has simply moved this element … So it makes it a little bit less complicated on the rebel side, so that most of the groups that will be fighting now the jihadis who have always been leading the revolution against Assad.
AARON MATE: And you know, it’s been interesting to see, in some of the news coverage recently, that it’s now being openly admitted in a way that I think was not so much acknowledged before, that some of the groups that the U.S. was arming were openly fighting alongside al Qaeda’s affiliate the Nusra Front.
CHARLES GLASS: Well, they’ve been fighting alongside ISIS and the Nusra Front, which is now the front for the liberation of Syria. They’re not only fighting alongside them, many of them joined them. Many took their training and their weapons into Syria and then joined the jihadi groups as soon as they got there and that’s been an open secret all along.
AARON MATE: And so, in terms of this making the battlefield less complicated, I mean, does that signify then that this gives the Assad regime a huge advantage to take on the remaining rebels that it’s fighting now that the U.S. support is waning?
CHARLES GLASS: It suits the governments narrative, which all along, probably wrongly, but all along has said that the only people opposing it are fanatic jihadis and criminals. So now that the moderate opposition has basically ceased to exist on the battlefield, you might say that that prophecy has come true. So it’s an easier sell for Bashar al-Assad as well as his backers in Syria, in Russia, Iran to sell to the rest of the world.
AARON MATE: Right, okay. So one other backer is of course, Hezbollah, and they’ve recently scored a major victory against al-Qaeda affiliated fighters in Arsal, the Islamic State. Can you talk about that front?
CHARLES GLASS: Of course, Arsal is a village in mainly Sunni Muslim, Lebanese village, almost abutting the Syrian border. It was a place where many of the jihadi fighters and their families took refuge from the fighting in Syria when they needed time to relax. The Lebanese army tried to drive them out, failed, in the first instance in 2014 and many of its soldiers and policeman were taken prisoner by the Islamic State and by Nusra. The Lebanese army within Lebanon had been, in the last month, driving them out of the village of Arsal. And on the other side, on the Syrian side of the border, the Syrian army and Hezbollah have been hitting them very hard there. So it looks as if in the coming weeks or days that border will secure, will no longer be an infiltration route for the jihadis in Syria to come into Lebanon.
AARON MATE: Okay, and let’s talk about Idlib province, where the al-Qaeda affiliate has made a major gain recently and there’s been fears of basically that the complete take over of the whole province, of Idlib, by al-Qaeda. Can you talk about what’s going on there and what it would mean if al-Qaeda does control the entire province?
CHARLES GLASS: Well, Idlib province has been the cradle of the rebellion for the last year. Whenever the government has negotiated the surrender of rebels in the suburbs of Aleppo, and in Eastern Aleppo, or the suburbs of Damascus, and have offered the option of surrendering or leaving the combat areas, they have chosen to go to Idlib. And that suits the government very well to confine them all to Idlib. Now there are probably a thousand different militia groups in Idlib and the government knew very well by letting them all concentrate there, they would start fighting one another, which they are doing. The dominant groups, the ones who receive the most money, the best weapons, from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey et cetera, will prevail and Nusra is one of those as is ISIS.
AARON MATE: And speaking of ISIS, the Kurds have been battling ISIS in Raqqa, but meanwhile you have signs of increasing pressure on them coming from Erdogan in Turkey, of course. He is a bitter enemy of the Kurds. Can you talk about what Erdogan has been doing recently in relation to the Kurds and what that might mean for Syria?
CHARLES GLASS: What Erdogan had when he declared his war on the Islamic state in Syria, was actually using that as a cover to attack the Kurds of Syria. The Kurds, who have an understanding with the government of Bashar al-Assad, that they don’t fight against his forces and his forces don’t fight against them. This disturbed Erdogan, who does not want to [inaudible 00:06:21] for the Kurds in Syria because it will impact on the Kurds [inaudible 00:06:25] Also the Kurdish group that is doing the fighting, the YPG, is backed by the Turkish Kurdish organization, the PKK, the Kurdish workers party, which the Turks have always branded as a terrorist movement. So they see any Kurdish presence along their border as a threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity.
AARON MATE: I want to ask you also about the resignation that was just announced by the veteran U.N. prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, from the U.N. commission investigating Syrian war crimes and this is what she said: “At first there was good and bad, the opposition on the side of good and the government in the bad role. But today, everyone in Syria is on the bad side. The Assad government had perpetrated horrible crimes against humanity and used chemical weapons and the opposition is now made up of extremists and terrorists.” Your thoughts on that, Charles, and what hew resignation signifies at this stage to the conflict.
CHARLES GLASS: Unfortunately, her resignation signifies the failure of the U.N. system to deal with human rights abused in Syria by any side. And we’ve witnessed terrible crimes that the Islamic State committed in Raqqa and in other areas that it conquered, crucifying people, burning them alive, [inaudible 00:07:50] We’ve also witnessed the regime’s crimes. I think that as she went more after the opposition, the certain members of the security counsel became less enthusiastic about it because many of those oppositionists who were committing war crimes were backed by the United States, Britain, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. And this was getting into tender territory that she, because she’s a relentless prosecutor, she was a very well respected attorney general of [inaudible 00:08:21] She was taking on both sides, which the trail for the regime’s crimes leads back to Russia and to Iran, and the trail for the opposition’s crimes leads directly back to the western and Arab backers of those militias.
AARON MATE: Hm. Finally, Charles, let me ask you … You’ve been saying for a while that it would help end the Syrian war if the major outside powers could reach some sort of accommodation. Specifically, the U.S. and the gulf states in Turkey on one side, and Russia and Iran on the other. I’m wondering if you think that Trump ending this CIA program of supporting the rebels and the sort of perpetual stalemate that that support helped engender, if that is a possible sign that the U.S. is moving towards being able to accept some kind of a settlement in accord with Russia and Iran?
CHARLES GLASS: In theory, yes. The administration in Washington is eradicating its policies, and then they reverse themselves from day to day. While this program may have been abandoned, they may be perfectly capable of starting another one next week, But if they are going to be consistent and give up this program, give up arming one side in this civil war, then calling on the Russians to do the same on the other side, there might be some hope of an accommodation. Remember that in Lebanon, which is next door, there was a civil war that went on for fifteen years. Now neither Lebanon nor Syria manufactures weapons. Both of them had to receive those from outside powers.
In Lebanon, in 1990, the outside powers decided enough was enough and they forced the Lebanese to sign an agreement at Ta’if in Saudi Arabia, to end their civil war. Not all of the war lords on Lebanon liked the agreement, but they agreed to it, they signed it and the Lebanese war ended. A similar approach could be taken in Syria, which the rebels and the regime may not like the terms of whatever agreement the U.S. and Russia impose on them, but it would be good for the Syrian people to see this war that had gone on for over six years, killed as many [inaudible 00:10:41]
AARON MATE: So on that front, who are the key players that you’re looking at in terms of what their next moves are gonna be and whether they’re going to exert any meaningful pressure on the combatants inside?
CHARLES GLASS: Well, meaningful pressure would mean that U.S. informs Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey that all support for the rebels comes to an end when the agreement is put into place. And that the Russians and Iranians will tell the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, that if he doesn’t come to an accommodation, which will mean a transitional regime and free elections probably, that he too will be deprived of funding and of weapons.
AARON MATE: Charles Glass, veteran journalist, author, most recently of, “Syria Burning: A Short History of a Catastrophe.” Charles, thank you.
CHARLES GLASS: Thank you very much.
AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.